Television: A feast for the eyes, but slim pickings for fashion-watchers

The President’s State visit to Britain was proper event TV – history in the making – and RTÉ’s coverage did it justice

Tuesday this week is one of those days when watching TV on a spring-like afternoon doesn't feel like slacking off. RTÉ's live coverage of the State visit of President Michael D Higgins to Britain feels like proper event television. It's a wildly overused description, but this is watching history in the making. And the tone of RTÉ's comprehensive coverage over the four days is respectful and authoritative, bursting with gravitas, putting the events in historical and political perspective with a strong line-up of informed contributors, including the very familiar voice of John Bowman.

Tuesday at Windsor Castle is the day with the most pageantry. And the President’s obvious delight on the first day of the visit – it radiates from him – is so infectious that it makes watching all that pomp and rigid ceremony oddly relaxing.

In the afternoon Myles Dungan, as off-screen commentator, plays a blinder, filling in the long silences with nuggets of historical facts as the carriages make their way to the castle, where the band plays and Domhnall the dog is presented with a new coat after President Higgins has inspected all those guards.

The coverage could lighten up in the evening for the state banquet, though. Yes, of course, the speeches are important, and due silence is given for them, but what are the guests wearing, what’s the starter, is there a vegetarian option and why are a whole pineapple and a bowl of red apples in front of every second place setting? Is that a fashionable thing we should all be copying?


Camilla, duchess of Cornwall, and Sabina Coyne, the President's wife, look fabulously elegant, but, in red-carpet parlance, who or what are they wearing? A bit of frivolity in the commentary is what events like this cry out for. The newsreader Bryan Dobson is stationed on the battlements of Windsor Castle, with the historian Kate Williams and the Irish Post editor Siobhán Breatnach, as random – who's the sheikh we keep seeing behind the flower arrangements? – sometimes oddly shaky images of the banquet taking place inside the castle are relayed.

Dobson knows his limitations when faced with such bling. “I’ll be depending on you to talk about that,” he tells the women, looking slightly alarmed. They give a tiny bit of colour, but not nearly enough details for those of us who want to know about the dresses and the table settings, whether there’s a hire-all place for tails and white tie, or if Daniel Day-Lewis is on his own.

Williams, a terrific addition to the commentary team throughout, does try, though, talking about how the long table was polished by footmen with sock-covered mallets, sliding up and down – whatever about the pineapples, don’t try that at home – and how the guests will know when dinner is over because bagpipers will arrive, a tradition that goes back to Queen Victoria, who liked that sort of thing.

I seem to remember the commentary of the State dinner at Dublin Castle when Queen Elizabeth visited the Republic, in 2011, being full of those fashion-and-frippery details alongside the serious stuff – they’re not mutually exclusive – and it was all the more entertaining for it.

The Insiders (RTÉ One, Monday) is a fascinating documentary looking at that visit by Queen Elizabeth from the point of view of those working behind the scenes. It was all down to managing the smallest details. There was the anxiety about the steps in the Garden of Remembrance – the last royal visitor, Prince Albert of Monaco, fell up them, so the queen’s people had to be told how many she would be faced with. They came in an advance party anyway, to scope out the colour schemes in the venues, so the queen’s clothes wouldn’t clash.

John O’Regan of RTÉ tells of the huge challenge in getting the filming right for both the home and the international audience. Wanting to capture up close the queen laying the wreath in the Garden of Remembrance – one of the iconic images of her visit – he hit on the idea of putting a camera in the statue. “In effect what we wanted to do is place a black object with wires coming out the back of it pointing at the queen as she is placing a wreath,” he says, still sounding bemused that he got away with it but rightly proud of the result.

For the dinner at Dublin Castle, Phyllis and Margaret, Dubs each with 50-plus years of waitressing experience, were chosen to serve Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. The people at the top table had a server each, and their own salt and pepper shakers, so there’d be none of that pass-the-salt reaching-over-each-other business. All staff were under strict instructions to serve the royals without saying a word. And Phyllis did try, but, as she says, she had spent her entire career saying “Enjoy your meal” after she put a plate down, so it was just too hard to break the habit of a lifetime.

The Crimson Field (BBC One, Sunday) is a period drama series. Yes, another one, Call the Midwife for the trenches, except with the sound of distant battles, not babies. Though, in fairness, this field-hospital drama, set in 1915 in France, at the front, is part of the BBC's impressively comprehensive first World War centenary programme, so it isn't just an attempt to grab on to Downton Abbey 's ratings-winning coat tails.

It’s good looking, too – too good looking. It’s not quite glamping, but the tents are very smart and roomy, and everyone looks remarkably clean, from the starched nurses in their sparkling white uniforms to the photogenically injured soldiers dotted around the landscaped grounds. Episode one spends a long time introducing the nurses. There are only six episodes, so it would want to buck up a bit in terms of delivering a few engaging storylines, not just clunky hints of what’s to come.

The very attractive volunteer nurses are tick-the-box female TV types: the spinster (Marianne Oldham), the difficult one (Oona Chaplin), the ditzy one (Flora Marshall) and the adventurous one (Suranne Jones). Already there are a couple of dashing doctor chappies with a glint in the eye for the nurses, so no prizes for guessing where that’s going. Their bosses have more potential for interesting drama, with fierce, rule-obsessed matron (Hermione Norris) and her evil, cake-robbing, sadistic sidekick (Kerry Fox).

Now this week's overload of exposition is over, the series might pick up – or, at the very least, get a bit mucky looking. The Crimson Field feels flat – not a must-see, though diverting enough for Sunday evening.